…if they really are out to get us?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering today, as I contemplate the current state of things in American politics.

There is a phenomenon in psychology known as habituation, in which an organism – human or animal – begins to ignore some stimulus in its environment that has been repeated over and over. After a certain point, the brain just tunes it out, and stops reacting even at the neurological level. Our nervous systems are set up to notice changes in the environment. Changes represent potential threats, or risks, or food sources, and they draw our attention quickly, while unchanging things are quickly filed and forgotten.

Say you bring home a new clock and put it on your mantle. When you first start it up, you notice the ticking sound made by the second hand as it moves in its circular route. But very quickly you become unaware of the noise unless you are deliberately attending to it.

Here’s another example: I live in the flight path of the Redstatesville airport. There are relatively few flights in and out of the airport each day, and once I had been living here for a while, I rarely noticed the planes anymore unless one passed by particularly low directly overhead. In the last few days, however, a helicopter has been flying around my neighborhood frequently, presumably because of its proximity to the airport. That, I notice. But if it becomes routine over the next few weeks, I’ll probably stop noticing it, as well.

People who live along train tracks experience a similar phenomenon, and wonder why their house guests never seem to get a good night’s sleep.

It kind of works the same way with warnings. Call it Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome: when a warning is repeated endlessly, and the event warned of never happens, the warning itself becomes meaningless chatter that gets filtered out as we go about our business.

When’s the last time you really listened to a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety speech? Do you actually look around the cabin to find the nearest exit before takeoff? I’m betting that for frequent travelers, the answer to those questions are, “Um, jeez, I don’t know,” and “No,” respectively.

Where am I going with this?

Well, as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I believe that the current administration has been using terror management theory to manipulate public opinion. Keith Olbermann has ably chronicled this in the series of reports he has done about the nexus of politics and terror, in which he recalls for us all the times that bad news affecting the Bush administration was followed, usually within a day or so, by press releases from the White House or the Department of Homeland Security about the terrorist threat. Increases in the threat level, the sudden reporting of uncovered and averted plots, that sort of thing.

And of course, the Republican Party’s beating of the 9/11 drum in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election was plain for all to see.

In the 2006 elections, they tried this strategy again, but it didn’t work for them so well that time. Partly because people were fed up with the ongoing Iraq war, and likely partly because of habituation.

People have simply heard the politicians talk about 9/11 so much that most people (though of course not all) now sort of tune them out and focus on other issues. Like the war, or the economy, or the huge laundry list of scandals perpetrated by this administration.

What does all this mean?

It means, quite frankly, that if the Republicans (and those interests that support them or benefit from their policies) want to continue to use fear successfully as a tool of political manipulation, they probably actually need another terrorist attack, preferably one on US soil. Something that makes a big boom, figuratively or literally.

This thought has been keeping me awake at night lately.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that this is a Republican party campaign strategy. I am not accusing anyone of treason. There has been no attack yet, and I have know knowledge of actual facts about any plot.

What I’m saying is, that it would only take a few people with knowledge of terror management theory’s implications to see what “needed” to be done and to arrange for it to happen.

You may, at this point, be thinking, “Wait a minute. This is all well and good, but so far I haven’t heard anything that would suggest that people high up in the current administration or the Republican party are even aware of terror management theory. Isn’t this just something a bunch of ivory-tower social psychologists like to jawjack about? Where’s your evidence that any of the people you are talking about know anything at all about this?”

Here’s the thing:

Since 9/11, there has been a major increase in government funding for terror management research. Much if not all of that funding comes through the Department of Homeland Security, and various military officers and DHS officials have been briefed on the findings by the very university professors who are conducting the research.

How do I know this? Ah, that would be telling. But some of it, at least, can probably be confirmed through public sources – particularly information about research grants that have been made to fund the research. As for the briefings claim, well…let’s just say I have my sources, and leave it at that for now.

You can see why I am losing sleep at night: I don’t think the terrorists are the only ones we have to fear.

Hell, I don’t even think the terrorists are the most dangerous threat at the moment.

What might motivate otherwise loyal Americans to orchestrate a “terrorist” attack on their own country?

Money. Power.

Both of these are at stake, in huge amounts, at the moment.

My original mental doomsday scenario called for the attack to be a few weeks before the November election. Say, late September or early October.

But last night I got to thinking, what if manipulating the election results to ensure a favorable outcome weren’t your only goal?

What if you were trying to force measures further eroding our privacy and civil liberties through Congress?

What if you wanted an excuse to start bombing Iran?

Am I being paranoid?

We’re heading into a three-day weekend, a time when people will be pumped up with patriotic fervor. The day when we celebrate our country’s founding and the battle for our independence.

There will be all sorts of big events drawing thousands of people, all across the country. Baseball games, outdoor concerts, fireworks displays.

And large gatherings of people make really good targets for a terrorist attack.

Am I being paranoid?

I really, really hope so. Believe me when I say that nothing would make me happier than to be wrong on this.

I just hope that, if the worst does happen, if another attack does occur, that things will be a little different than they were after 9/11. That Congress won’t rush to sell out our remaining civil liberties, or allow us to be bulldozed into a war with Iran before the investigation into the attack is even finished. That the media will question the information being fed to them by those in power, instead of just mindlessly reporting it as truth. That whoever conducts the investigation looks not just at the Middle East, but also closer to home, when trying to establish the list of suspects and their motivations.

I think I’ll end on that cheerful note. Again, I really hope to be proven wrong in all of this. I’ll be really happy if on January 21, 2009, I’m writing a post about how I got all worked up over nothing.

As for this weekend, well, I don’t think I’ll be going to any baseball games, or large concerts, or fireworks shows. Maybe I’ll go for a drive out into the farmland surrounding us here in Redstatesville. See how the corn’s coming up. Get away from the city lights and lie on the hood of my car staring up at the sky, counting stars and dreaming of a world where I don’t feel the need to engage in the kind of paranoid speculation I’ve been doing here today.

jane doe

Addendum: A new CNN poll out today (July 2) reports that “Americans’ concerns about terrorism have hit an all-time low for the post-September 11 era,” and goes on to say:

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday, 35 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack somewhere in the United States is likely over the next several weeks.

The figure is the lowest in a CNN poll since the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

All of which ties in with my comment above about Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome. If Americans have become less concerned with the threat of another attack, then repeated comments about 9/11 and the threat of future attacks are less likely to have the kind of impact at the polls that they did in 2004.

I’m just saying…